25 July 2011

What is Aspergers?

People ask me this a lot - they hear terms like Autism and Asperger's bandied about, but they don't really know the differences, and unless they have had experience with people on the Autism Spectrum, they don't really have a field of reference other than the "Rain Man" extreme.

This is what I tell them:

We are all born with varying skill sets - different strengths, weaknesses and talents. Some of us are fantastic at sports, some are good at maths, others are good at drama. Some people have a talent in music and can learn any instrument effortlessly. Some people have a penchant for languages.

On the other hand we all have areas we are weak in as well. We might need a tutor for maths, or we might avoid the stage. We can choose not to dabble in languages, and we can seek support in other areas of academic weakness.

People with Aspergers/Autism are no different in that regard. They are born with different skill sets just like anyone else. They are not all the same as each other, any more than neurotypicals are all the same as each other. The brain is wired differently, and there are some commonalities in thinking processes, but every person on the spectrum is also an individual with their own specialties to offer. They have some common areas of strength or difficulty, and also often have talents not seen in neurotypical people.

Aspergers includes but is not limited to:
- being utterly honest and committed to the truth
- having a wonderful sense of humour
- creativity
- unshakeable loyalty
- having a unique world view
- valuing non-conformity
- having absolute compassion for others who need it
- enjoying a different way of thinking
- attention to detail
- capacity to spot the micro
- an extraordinary ability to focus for long periods on areas of special interest
- enjoying a vivid imagination

I actually personally object to the word Disorder, because in my opinion it's all relative. A person on the Autism spectrum doesn't see themselves as disordered any more than you see yourself as disordered. Just because the typical person has a basic skill set which can be considered somewhat across the board, and the 1% who are on the spectrum have a different skill set, doesn't mean that they should be considered to be "disordered". It's arrogance beyond the pale, IMO.

In my view, the only reason people consider Asperger's to be a disorder, is related to the fact that social skills development doesn't come naturally. While the neurotypical child begins to naturally pick up on social cues by about three years old, people with Asperger's need constant monitoring and tutoring and assistance in this area as an ongoing process.

The pleasant reality for the neurotypical person is that we can choose not to do languages at school, or to get a tutor for maths, and once we've learned those skills (or rejected them), we don't need to re-learn them in order to survive. However a person on the Spectrum needs to constantly work on their social skills in order to survive in a world full of neurotypicals with high expectations.

The truth is, if it wasn't for the existence and demands of the neurotypicals, the person on the spectrum wouldn't have a problem at all. In fact, I challenge you to consider, they don't have a problem or disorder. Rather, neurotypicals and our expectations are the problem - we expect a lot from people socially, and we encompass the majority of the population. Therefore people with Asperger's/Autism suddenly develop a "problem" because they are different to us.

As Tony Attwood says, people with Asperger's are "different, not defective."
Tony Attwood: About Asperger's



While it is not necessarily useful to split hairs over the differences between Autism/Asperger's/High-Functioning Autism, people do ask, so to clarify a couple of the simpler technicalities:

Tony Attwood is well known for reminding us that the difference between Asperger's and High Functioning Autism is, very simply, how they are spelled.

In simple terms, Asperger's and Autism are usually separated in the diagnostic process by the presence of delay in language development. Language delay is common with Autism, whereas with Asperger's, vocabulary is often more advanced than in the average child (although comprehension of and appropriate use of these advanced words isn't always apparent).

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